Getting Out of the Way - Stepping Aside for Innovation
In a time of state mandates, educational leaders must nurture innovation in teachers and students. In the quest to increase rigor and meet national standards, innovation and creativity are often sacrificed in the name of focus. Instead, innovation and creativity should be fostered to increase rigor and meet standards, preparing our students to be college and career ready. Top down leadership can sometimes narrow options, possibilities, and subsequently, growth. To foster a truly collaborative environment, administrators must be willing to step aside and encourage their staff to innovate, while supporting and encouraging the endeavors of their educators.
To do this...
- One must instill confidence in practitioners to innovate.
- One must cultivate a culture that fosters innovation.
- One must create an environment of reflective practice that allows educators to learn from mistakes without consequences.
Music Department - The arts are often on the proverbial chopping block as budgets get cut and funding disappears. At Delsea, we try to keep the knowledge of nurturing the whole child at the forefront of our curricular decisions. In order to foster students who are ready for the real world, creativity must be cultivated. The arts teach students discipline, encourage higher levels of thinking, and promote collaboration.
At Delsea, we have been lucky to have a music department that collaborates to create a state-of-the-art program for our students, has confidence in the program and believes in Delsea’s mission and vision. Over the past four years, Delsea’s music program has been undergoing a sort of Renaissance. It all started with our teachers approaching the administration with an idea focused on switching up their teaching schedules, having them cross between buildings, and sharing in the teaching of both MS and HS classes. This was something new and different; it included many unknown elements. After much discussion, planning, and thought, we said yes with the understanding that if the data did not show that the new structure was working, we would go back to the drawing board and try something else.
Since that first successful step toward innovation, the teachers have infused iPads and GarageBand into the middle school general music class curriculum; they also increased technology at the high school. We have a Music Tech course that teaches students to compose music and allows those students who may not be gifted with the ability to sing or play an instrument the opportunity to be musically involved on the creation and production end. This year, the teachers came to the administration with another idea: a Music Tech 3 course. It would focus on all aspects of music production, including writing, producing, performing, recording, and marketing. As with all of the other successful proposals prior to the Music Tech 3 proposal, the administration said yes and is working to move out of the way and let them be innovative.
What makes these partnerships so successful is the confidence the music educators have in their ability, intuition, and students. They also know that the administration, and the Board of Education, have confidence in their ability to know our students and programs and know our needs as a district to remain progressive. We have had students go on to be recording artists, instrumentalists, stars of the stage, and working artists. It all starts with innovative educators who continue to push the envelope in their curriculum, providing students with relevant experiences. Teachers have to have the confidence to take an idea and advocate for it. And the converse is that the administration and BOE both have to have that same confidence in their teachers to trust their instincts and understanding of the current performance data to take a risk in the classroom.
SWA-G (Students Working A-G) - The achievement gap, always present, but first highlighted under NCLB, continues to be education’s elephant in the room. While there are many “canned” programs available for schools to implement, it is vital that each school meet the unique needs of their students and their special circumstances. Fixing the achievement gap requires a culture that honors the innovative ideas of our professionals who are in the classroom and doing the work.
At Delsea, the conversation was initiated by a classroom paraprofessional who saw students on the cusp of disaster, but saw no safety net into which they could fall. After attending several sessions on at risk students sponsored by the coalition of the New Jersey Network to Close the Achievement, she felt comfortable coming to us with her idea because the culture was such that all stakeholders’ ideas are honored and considered. Within a year, SWA-G was born.
We started with the boys. A group of at-risk students was identified based upon a myriad of factors: grades, attendance, support (or lack thereof) at home, discipline records, and attitudes toward school. Once identified, guidance counselors worked to create a daily schedule that incorporated two periods of SWA-G per day; once in the morning and again at the end of the day. A curriculum was created that offered students organizational skills, character building, good decision-making skills, and assistance with academics according to the needs of each student. And a surprising thing happened; young men began to emerge. Data showed improvement in grades, attendance, discipline, and attitudes toward school. Students began to speak of life-changing moments occurring in the SWA-G classes, even preparing a presentation to the Board of Education thanking them for the program.
An idea, born from an observation, in a culture open to change and risk, resulted in young men finding their way. Now, it’s onto the girls!
Flipped Gifted & Talented (G&T) - The administration at Delsea is also the administration at Elk Township School District, one of the two sending elementary districts, through a shared services relationship. Aura Elementary is a quiet, rural, one-school district that cherishes family, community, and heritage. Fast forward to current day and two administrators who encourage innovation. To say that it has been a bit of a culture shock would be mild, as educators at Aura Elementary have been pushed to the limits this year. Part of the academic press has come from state mandates and the rigor of the CCSS. The rest has come from a call to action involving innovation that goes against the current culture.
One of the reasons that the push for change and innovation has been successful at Aura Elementary is that the administration has owned mistakes and small failures, using them as opportunities to grow and learn rather than as negative outcomes. Infusing reflective practice into the culture has allowed the staff to take risks, reflect upon the experience, and learn from it. This type of thinking has created opportunities and allowed teachers to try new ideas in an environment that fosters innovation.
As we reviewed our programs during the summer of 2013, one of the areas for review and revision was Gifted & Talented (G&T). The previous program was an after school and pull-out program that proposed little challenge for the students. A new idea emerged, flipping G&T. This fall we started a 1:1 Chromebook initiative in both districts, which allowed for the flipped notion to evolve in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes. Students would operate in an online environment for G&T, modeling college-type assignments. The flipped G&T program at Aura involves a question of the week that learners respond to and converse with their classmates. It also incorporates a monthly theme that students work on and complete individually and/or in online groups. Some of the themes to date have been learning about G&T and being a gifted student, Mt. Everest, and the Iditarod race. We have learned much in the first few months of flipped learning. Every time we learn something or realize that the outcome was not quite as expected, we make a change or alter the program slightly. Parents and students were told to expect an ever-evolving program with the flipped G&T from the start. The facilitators meet with each grade level every month during the school day to review the previous theme, introduce the new theme, answer questions, and ask for student suggestions. The program has pushed our students. One student commented that, “I love how the program changes because this makes all of the students in the G&T program more interested in the projects and eager to do them.”
Part of stepping aside to allow innovation involves allowing for trial and error. Engaging in conversations that foster reflective practice and then using that information to improve learning yields excitement and commitment. These attitudes permeate into other areas and grades, enticing other teachers to engage in innovation. Because when all is said and done, the administration will support and foster a better elementary school, making them ready for secondary school and beyond.
How does the staff feel about the district philosophy of empowering all stakeholders to create and innovate? A Delsea music teacher said it best, “I believe that the administration, both district and building, has allowed the music department, as well as other departments, to become a more cohesive entity in the district. The administration has not pressured us or micromanaged to the point of where the decisions we have made to restructure the department for the betterment of the students have adversely affected the teaching and learning environment. We basically were permitted to make the changes that we thought would be the most beneficial to the students; having each of us teach to our strengths. The professional opportunities that we, the music faculty, have to better prepare our students have been embraced by the administration. If we see that our choices aren't working, the administration allows us to revise and revamp. They are permitting us to be the ‘professionals’ that they hired us to be.”
At Delsea and Elk School Districts, innovators are welcome; we will happily step aside to nurture and support change.